Entrepreneurial Spirit

Cross posted from Business Today Egypt

It was almost finals week at American University in Cairo’s (AUC) New Campus. But inside the cavernous Bassilly Auditorium, a much greater prize than an “A” was on the line. To be precise: LE 50,000 and a partnership with Souq.com, the largest online retailer in the Middle East.

That’s what awaited the winners of the inaugural “The Hit,” competition, staged by the AUC Entrepreneurs’ Society in collaboration with Souq.com. One hundred teams initially threw their hats into the ring in hopes of designing the most innovative, inspiring, marketable product.

It was no wonder then that the sharply-dressed finalists paced about the pre-event cocktail party a little anxiously. “I’m very nervous — as in, not eating nervous,” said Farida Abdelnabi, who along with her teammate on team Farila, Fadila Abdelaal, designed a woman’s shoe that converts from heels to flats. The concept, Abdelnabi explained, originated at a Model UN conference, where the women in attendance complained about their uncomfortable footwear. “There’s no heel that’s comfortable,” she said.

So, Abdelnabi and Abdelaal, business marketing majors and childhood friends, set out to create a shoe that would address the age-old female affliction. They visited shoe manufacturers in Cairo to discuss the logistics of the design, and, in the end, produced a wooden prototype.

Some of the other finalists’ products included paper made from the waste created when producing marble and a customizable cane outfitted with a General Packet Radio Service module to transmit the user’s location to a relative in case of an emergency.

Over the course of four rounds, the competitors constantly fine-tuned their ideas to survive a swift-moving elimination process. After a planning round, in which the initial entrants delivered their pitches to a panel of judges, representing Souq.com and various Egyptian companies, the field was whittled down to 16.

Those that advanced attended instructional seminars covering each stage of the entrepreneurial process: pitching, developing, branding, marketing. Meanwhile, the elimination process continued reality TV-style through a combination of judge evaluations and fan voting based on episodes posted online. For the final round, only five teams remained standing.

Not all the finalists were thrilled by the popularity contest nature of the competition, but Omar Soudodi, the general manager for Souq.com in Egypt and one of the judges, explained, “The idea behind qualifying teams based on audience votes stems from the fact that we need to test real market demand for these innovative products. They are all unique ‘inventions’ that will create a new niche for themselves. So in order to become a sustainable business, it will be critical for them to have tested real market reactions to the concept.”

Youssef El Sammaa, the chief executive officer of the Entrepreneur’s Society, said that the competition represented a new focus for the group. “The Hit” replaced a convention the society used to host where aspiring entrepreneurs were taught the basics of their craft in a more traditional manner. The competition format, on the other hand, afforded students the opportunity to engage in entrepreneurship directly and emerge with their own marketable product.

“We wanted people to have something concrete in their hands at the end,” El Sammaa noted.

El Sammaa, who studies construction management and engineering, has his own lofty ambitions. He says he’d like to stay involved in entrepreneurship after he graduates, even though he hears mixed things about the current business climate in Egypt.

“People tell me it’s really hard [to get a business going], especially with everything that’s happening with the bureaucracy,” he says, but added, “If you do get something started, it’s easier because there’s less competition.”

Indeed, the prospects for Egypt’s budding entrepreneurs are unclear at the moment. Political instability combined with years of government neglect of basic needs and decrepit infrastructure pose significant hurdles to the business community. The well-documented economic woes since the revolution are not about to evaporate anytime soon.

Still, Sherif Kamel, the dean of the AUC School of Business is bullish about Egypt’s prospects in the medium and long terms. “I think we’re going to take off,” he said. The key, he added, is the country’s young, educated population. “Young people are the oil of the 21st century. They can be a major engine of growth.”

That future, Kamel emphasized, will be in the private sector. Omar Soudodi echoed that sentiment, saying that Egyptians don’t believe anymore in government institutions, so the skills fostered in settings like this will be most critical in setting the country’s economic trajectory.

Egypt’s upside, Soudodi added, is enormous. In a recent survey, 24% of students said they wanted to start their own business in their first year after graduating, a figure far surpassing that in most developed countries. And increasing internet penetration has made those aspirations more realistic than ever. Now, with a little bit of web-savvy, young entrepreneurs can get their products into the public domain, access overseas markets, and, perhaps most importantly, bypass many of the logistical and bureaucratic obstacles to commerce on the ground. For example, Soudodi noted, political instability sometimes boosts Souq.com’s business, as consumers look for virtual, instead of physical, marketplaces, though he added that the positive effect tends to be neutralized by other factors like market uncertainty.

On this crisp night on Greater Cairo’s easternmost fringes, though, Egypt’s macroeconomic picture was about as far away from the finalists’ minds as possible. Inside the auditorium, friends of the finalists lent the grand finale a raucous atmosphere as the anticipated announcement drew near. No fewer than 10 video cameras filmed the event.

In the end, there were two winners. The grand prize, decided by online voting, went to @tweetshirt, whose concept would allow customers to customize T-shirts, mugs, car shades and bean bags with a tweet they’ve provided the link for. The members of the team were Muhammad Bassyouny, a physics and mathematics major; Ali El Azhary, a mechanical engineering major, and Kamal El Soueni, a business administration major. Their product will now be retailed on Souq.com.

Team Farila also came away with a prize, the Judges’ Choice Award. Abdelnabi and Abdelnaal will receive mentoring from Souq.com’s team in the hopes of converting their wood prototype into a functional shoe to be sold online.

“We think it will be a breakthrough in the shoe world,” Abdelaal proclaimed proudly. bt

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